How to Get a Healthy Society

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

Last time, I said that the main question of morality is not "what's right or wrong" but "what kind of people we choose to be."

At first glance, that statement seems absurd, bordering on offensive. Isn't morality all about what's right or wrong?

Morality guides our actions in life. If it's mainly about what we choose, then that suggests we could choose anything.

I choose not to kick puppies because I like puppies. But if I hated puppies, would it be morally okay if I "chose" to kick them? After all, it's my right to choose.

I'd say it's morally wrong. But then, I would say that, because I like puppies.1

And in essence, that shows one factor you need for a healthy society. If you can't prove moral ideas to anyone who disagrees, then you need a society in which most people agree about them.

Sure, you can prove your own moral ideas to your own satisfaction. But everyone can do that. The saint and the serial killer, the patriot and the traitor, the sane person and the lunatic all believe that they're acting morally.

In practical terms, proof isn't the issue. A workable society requires wide agreement about the fundamental truths of life. You need a population in which most people "like puppies." In other words, as British economist Walter Bagehot put it, you need:

"... a like body of men, because of that likeness capable of acting together, and because of that likeness inclined to obey similar rules."

The likeness doesn't have to be unanimous, and it doesn't have to be about every conceivable issue. But it does need large majority agreement about basic ideas. It also needs a majority willing and able to insist that dissident minorities respect those ideas at least in public; a majority that refuses to be manipulated into giving up its society an inch at a time.

Ultimately, it leads to a question that American founder Alexander Hamilton posed in Federalist Paper #1:

"... whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

The answer is that we are capable of doing it, but we also need to get lucky. Whether because of shared history, religion, ethnicity, or other factors, a healthy society needs a population that can agree about:

  • the fundamental issues of life, and
  • ways to cooperate in spite of any remaining disagreements.

Without those things, we're pushed back to relying on "accident and force."

And is that where sensible people of any belief system want to be?

Footnotes

  1. British philosopher and two-time Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once said that he couldn't refute moral relativism, but neither could he believe that the only thing wrong with murder was that he just didn't like it.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."